Listener Essay - Embracing The Fear

Feb 20, 2015

  Casey Mulligan Walsh is a speech-language pathologist and writer who lives in West Sand Lake. Though she’s made peace with winter driving, it’s still not her strong suit.

Embracing the Fear

Vibrant fall colors flew past as I made the hour-long trip to the college where I’d decided to finish my education, long overdue. Cruising out of town, I felt free, sprung from my post at the bank like a prisoner on work release. I knew I was finally on the right road.

But by November, I felt more daunted than liberated, balancing academic deadlines and family responsibilities. Winter hit hard that year, weeks on end with relentless snowstorms punctuated by sleet and ice. On late-night drives home, I’d make my way to the highway, exit onto another stretch of surface roads, then, exhausted from sleep deprivation and stress, turn onto the first of several country roads that would finally lead me home.

Deep into the snowy darkness, conditions often worsened. Light flurries became fat flakes that came directly at the windshield; I’d dim the headlights and close one eye, attempting to correct the double vision. I wondered how I’d navigate the icy hills before me. When the rare car passed from the other direction, I’d slow to a near stop, praying the driver would stay in his lane. Praying I’d stay in mine.

Overwhelmed, I’d retreat into the silence. I can do this, I’d think, clutching the steering wheel, cracking the window to fight fatigue. Nothing worth having comes without risk. Push through the fear. Still shaky, I’d see myself pulling into the driveway, safe in the soft glow of the lamp through the window.

In the early 1980’s, I’d survived three predicaments in an 18-month period involving a rear-wheel-drive car and freezing precipitation. What remained was the memory of being stranded, halfway up one hill or another, once sliding toward the steep drop at the edge of the road even with the engine on idle. I vowed I’d never again drive dangerous wintry roads.

For a decade afterward, I stuck with a job near home, remaining underemployed rather than risk a perilous winter drive. Gradually, though, living a life hemmed in by the fear of sliding off an icy road to my demise couldn’t compete with the prospect of a happier life.

One night after class, as I plowed doggedly forward, feeling vulnerable in my tiny 10-year-old Escort wagon, I recalled E. L. Doctorow’s observations. "Writing is like driving at night in the fog,” he’d said. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It struck me that were I to drive any single mile on the snow-covered roads ahead of me, I would not be nearly as frightened. Leaving a friend’s with the kids mid-storm, I’d warm the car and carefully, confidently, steer us home. Home was, after all, just around the bend.

This new view – seeing each stretch of my treacherous route as the one that led to my house, easily within reach – changed nothing. Yet it changed everything.

I was learning the power of a simple shift in perspective. For years, I’d used the same visualization to picture the worst. It was a what-if free-for-all: what if the kids don’t get to college; what if one of them gets sick or hurt; what if I live out my life here in this lonely marriage; maybe worse, what if I don’t?

But gradually my dreams became as real as my fears and sometimes overtook them. On good days, I realized each was only as real as I allowed it to be. On my best days, I knew, no matter how huge the worries seemed, 99 percent of the time – in that moment – all was well.

Today - two decades later - I write, safe in my warm house, and catch sight through the window of yet another record snowfall. Though I’ve become accustomed to this type of winter, snow and bitter cold in a seemingly endless barrage, I don’t dread it any less.

Yet I see fear differently now. So many of the what-ifs from those days came true. There were accidents on roads both snowy and clear; my children didn’t make it through their education – or their early lives – unscathed; and there were big changes ahead for me that came at great price.

I’ve seen that love and peace are the opposites of fear and that when what we cling to no longer serves us, we choose again. Though, at every turn, I aim to choose peace, my battle with fear has been a great teacher. It’s spurred me to action when I might otherwise have languished and taught me - often the hard way - that usually what needs changing is my point of view.

Mostly, what’s carried me through has been grasping that the peace I so desperately seek already exists. When I’m unable to see any farther than the road right in front of me – that’s when I hold onto the vision that home is, in fact, just around the bend.

And I’ve made the whole trip this way, time and time again.